A Darker Path

Part Seventy-Six: Ripples

[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

Late Saturday Afternoon, PRT Building ENE

Director Paul Renick

"I will freely admit that when the abduction was first reported, I didn't consider that it might be connected to Atropos." Paul placed his hands flat on the desk, looking at the split-screen image in front of him. Kamil Armstrong looked sympathetic, Emily Piggot appeared thoughtful, and the Chief Director's expression was downright impassive. "We hadn't had any notification of the Barnes abduction for the simple reason that nobody had reported her missing, and the two other people taken were a Ward and the son of Kaiser. The natural assumption was that Empire remnants had taken him to act as a figurehead, and that she'd been snatched up as well. Which of course raised dire concerns about her welfare."

"Even if it wasn't connected to Atropos to begin with, it would've quickly gotten that way." Emily's tone was one of absolute assurance. "She doesn't allow crap like that to fly in her city."

"But where do we draw the line?" asked Armstrong. "Do we stand back and assume she'll take care of everything? That way lies learned helplessness, and from what I've seen of her work, I don't think she's in favour of that."

"No, she isn't." Paul paused for thought. "She expects us to do our job. In fact, she's spent the last two months making sure we can and will do our job. She's also extremely adept at working around us, if it looks like we might accidentally get in her way, but she never takes offense. So, I put everyone on it anyway. I figured, even if Atropos brings them home, it's still good training. And for all we knew, she might've been leaving it for us to get the kids back while she went after the ringleader."

The Chief Director weighed in for the first time. "Do I have this correct? She was abducted as well? In fact, the whole thing was about her, not them?"

"That's how the statements all line up," Paul confirmed. "This 'Goddess' cape wanted Atropos to wipe out all resistance to her Master power, and her best choices for hostages to keep Atropos in line were the leader of the Atropos Fan Club and the head of the Followers of Our Lady in Darkness, as they call themselves. Aisha Laborn and Emma Barnes. We know how we ended up on the back foot there, information-wise. The only thing I'm not one hundred percent sure about is whether Atropos actively invited the abduction as a way of neutralising Goddess, knew it was going to happen and planned ahead, or simply turned it around on her once she was there."

"Congratulations." Emily's voice was slightly drier than Death Valley at high noon in the middle of summer. "You've discovered the Atropos paradox. The end result is always the same, so I wouldn't spend too much time worrying about it."

Armstrong rubbed his chin with finger and thumb. "What's the potential fallout of Atropos going to an alternate Earth and instituting a drastic regime change? Specifically, with a Ward along?"

"Two Wards," Paul corrected. "Technically, one Ward went, but young Anders has shown a willingness to join, and he did trigger with powers before Atropos did whatever the hell it was that she did."

"Oh, good." Emily sounded sincere. "I've only seen the preliminary report about his powers. How's Armsmaster taking it?"

"Before we get into that," Chief Director Costa-Brown interjected, "I'm going to make the call here and now, regarding Earth Shin. Goddess' abduction of a Ward constituted an official act of war against Earth Bet. The fact that she was also so monumentally stupid as to mount any kind of assault on Atropos doesn't excuse her from the consequences; it merely turns everything that resulted into her personal fault."

"And we don't have to follow up on that?" ventured Armstrong.

"Follow up on what?" Emily sounded grimly satisfied. "They might have started the war, but Atropos prosecuted it with extreme prejudice, overthrew the terrorist regime, and brought our people back home without any casualties and with an extra Ward recruit into the bargain. Win-win."

"Director Piggot is essentially correct," Costa-Brown agreed. "Also, if I'm reading these statements correctly, there's a chance that they'll open negotiations for a trade agreement. The more friendly contacts we can have with the various alternate Earths, the better."

"Good, good." Armstrong nodded. "So, Director Renick. I also find myself curious about what Armsmaster thinks about young Anders and his powers."

Miss Militia

Hannah peered at the gauntlet Theo had removed and handed over to her. "How is this supposed to come apart?" she asked. "I can't see any screws, or even rivets." Privately, she doubted that her presence would help very much; unlike Armsmaster, she wasn't a Tinker, and anyway she didn't do power armour.

"Not sure it's supposed to." Theo shrugged. "I just want it to be there, and it is."

"So how did you remove it?" Armsmaster had been looking more and more irritated as the inspection of Theo's armour went on. "I don't see any attachment points."

"I wanted to take it off, so it came off." Theo took the gauntlet back off Hannah and fitted it on his hand, then flexed the fingers as the seam sealed itself. "See, it's attached again."

"Hmm …" Hannah mused. "Try this: take the gauntlet off, then take the outer armour off the gauntlet." It wasn't a move she would try with one of her guns, but they'd already established that Theo's powers were unlike hers.

"Sure, okay." Theo reversed the procedure, then lifted the plate off the back of the hand with zero fuss or bother. Within was an intricate array of tiny servos, pivots and other components that Hannah thought she should recognise. When she manipulated one of the fingers, she saw the corresponding movement in the exposed mechanisms.

"That can't be right." Armsmaster looked closer. "Miss Militia, do you see any Tinkertech in there?"

"No, I don't." Hannah shook her head. "Not that I'm an expert, but that all looks entirely normal to me. Theo, can we see inside the arm?"

"Sure." The gauntlet Hannah was holding folded itself into smaller and smaller sections, then vanished while the full-sized version reformed on Theo's hand. Theo pulled the armour plate off his forearm and held it out for them to examine.

Feeling the excitement of validation, Hannah pointed at the multitude of componentry. "See? It's the same. No Tinkertech. Just really high-end steel, and tech like I've seen in photos of experimental mundane powered armour."

"It can't all be normal technology." Armsmaster shook his head. "Not the plasma cannon or the flight jets. How do those jets work? Nothing that small could lift armour of that weight, not without a fuel tank the size of the armour."

Theo cleared his throat. "Uh … were you there when I talked about Foundry? I can't remember."

Hannah turned her head to look directly at him. "Foundry?" She hadn't been in the room for the earlier discussions, and this was the first she'd heard of that name.

"Yeah, um, when I was under guard, the door just opened and this guy came in. He was made of steel plates joined together like, you know, geology stuff. Like the continents." Theo waved his hands vaguely, like he was trying to capture the word he was looking for.

"Tectonic plates?" suggested Armsmaster.

"That's the one, yeah. So there was molten steel coming from between the plates and dripping on the floor but vanishing when it hit, so I figured it was an illusion or something. Also, the guard didn't move, or look at him, or even blink. Anyway, he said his name was Foundry, and that he was the personification of the power that Allfather and Iron Rain and Kaiser had, and he was bored with waiting for me to reach a trigger point—"

"Wait." Hannah knew she probably shouldn't have interrupted, but this was something she'd never heard of. "Your power talked to you? And it was shaped like a person?"

"Um, yeah." Theo made his helmet go away, then sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck. "Isn't that what happens with everyone?"

"Not usually, no." Armsmaster's command of understatement was impressive. "What happened next?"

"Um, he said another power personification called Ending had told him to give me a nice easy power setup instead of slam-dunking me with powers that would nearly solve my problems and mainly get me into trouble. I'm, uh, not sure, but I think Ending might belong to Atropos. He seemed pretty scared of it, anyway."

"Hm." Armsmaster's mouth twisted in wry amusement. "That certainly tracks. So … Foundry gave you your powers?"

"Ah, we talked about it, and I told him what I'd like, and he had a kind of glowing golden ball that he said was from Plasma, that I'm pretty sure is Purity's power, and that's where the cannon and the flight jets and the power for the electronics comes from." Theo took a deep breath.

Hannah was pretty sure she was tracking what was happening, but she wanted to be certain. "So … you told Foundry that you wanted power armour that you could summon or send away, as well as a plasma rifle, and boot jets … and it just gave you that power, as an expression of 'create metal from nowhere'?"

"Yeah." Theo looked pleased that she understood. "Kaiser could build armour, but he had to make it piece by piece. Mine shows up pre-formed with all the bits and pieces, so I can move around without falling over."

"So, what happens when it gets damaged?" asked Armsmaster. "How long does it take you to repair it?"

"Oh, um, it's not really an issue." Theo took his left gauntlet off and dropped it on the workbench. "Hit it."

After only a moment of hesitation, Armsmaster unracked his halberd, activated the plasma cutter, then scored a deep slice in the back of the gauntlet. The steel was evidently of very high quality, because the cutter had trouble getting a proper purchase on it. "Done," he said, stepping back.

Theo nodded, then concentrated. The gauntlet folded itself into nothingness then reformed on his hand, entirely unmarred. "See? All I have to do is make it go away, then bring it back."

"Nice." Hannah was starting to see the parallels between his power and hers. "Do you have any other tricks like that?"

"Um, well, I can also do a shield, like this." He held up his left arm, forearm horizontal, palm inward. With a series of mechanical chnk noises, a metal ridge extended outward from it, then a steel kite shield built itself upward and downward from the ridge. "And a sword." He held up his right hand in a closed-fist pose. A steel bar extruded from it, then unfolded again and again in an almost fractal manner until he was holding a four-foot-long gleaming blade with a prominent pommel and cross-guard. "Or a war-hammer." The sword broke itself down in the same fractal manner to the steel bar, then built itself up again, extending outward then bulking up at the end until he held a steel-hafted hammer with a very solid-looking head. "I wanted options, you see."

"Yes, I do," answered Hannah, as Armsmaster seemed to have temporarily lost the power of speech. "Just a question: did the power come with the skills to use those weapons effectively?"

"Um, no." Theo made the hammer break itself down again until it was just a handle, which then vanished inside his gauntlet; his shield retracted at the same time. "I can swing and hit stuff, but against someone who knows how to use them, I'd probably suck big time. The plasma rifle's got a basic aiming dot in my visor, though."

"Always useful," Hannah allowed. "I can help tutor you in each one, if you want. Are those the only weapons you asked for?"

Still wearing the armour, Theo shrugged massively. "Yeah, I couldn't think of anything really tricky. But it would be great to learn how to use them properly. I don't want to hurt anyone by accident, y'know?"

"Yes, it would." Armsmaster cleared his throat. "Skill is very important. Your power is very … useful. You're getting protection, movement, offensive ability, and scanning technology, all at once." He spoke slowly and deliberately, in a way Hannah had only seen in people who were truly pissed off. She had an idea why, but she didn't want to draw attention to it.

However, Theo seemed to notice something was off. "Um … did I say or do something wrong? I didn't mean to."

"No, no, it's alright." Hannah ushered him to the other side of Armsmaster's lab, to give the Tinker a chance to cool down. "It's nothing you did, specifically. He's just … a little intense, about the amount of time he has to put into maintaining his equipment."

"Oh. Oh, crap." Theo looked mortified. "And I've just walked in, wearing armour that I don't have to maintain or repair, and weapons I don't have to reload or even carry around. He must think I'm the worst person in the world."

"No, that would've been Lung, before Atropos killed him," Hannah joked.

"Ha," Theo said politely. "Seriously though, how do I do this without stepping on his toes?"

She nodded in approval at his question. "He's a big boy. There will always be a little toe-stepping, and not just from you. But if I were you, I'd ask his opinion on matters and follow any advice he gives you."

"Thanks." He looked relieved. "I really do want to be a hero."

She smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "I never thought otherwise for a moment."

Laborn Residence


"I still think it's total bullshit," grumped Aisha. "I'm the one who was supposed to go off to a whole alternate earth and get awesome-as-fuck powers. I mean, I'm the head of Atropos' fan club. Who had the stones to meet with her for selfies? Me, that's who."

Brian frowned, but Riley spoke up first. "It wasn't fun at all," she chided. "There was a mean guy with a knife and a gun. You're good, but he was not a nice person at all. And if you and Brian had been home, someone might have gotten hurt. I was able to talk them into not hurting Theo, but they were really into not leaving witnesses behind."

"Jealousy isn't a good look for you, Aisha," added Brian. "Anyway, it wasn't Riley's or Theo's idea to go instead of you. And they could really have died."

He could tell Aisha didn't want to let it go, but eventually she shrugged in what looked like a resigned fashion. "Yeah, I guess. And the Barnes chick didn't get powers, so I probably wouldn't have gotten them either."

It had gotten a little hectic after Brian's call to Ms Brown. PRT plainclothes personnel had descended on the apartment in force and gotten statements from Riley and Theo. Once they'd found out about Theo's new powers (Brian had been seriously impressed when he saw the armour for the first time) he'd been conveyed off for power testing at the Protectorate HQ.

Personally, Brian had been mildly worried about Vista's reaction to Theo's colour scheme—his silver and green was a little close to her white and green—so Aisha's outburst about how unfair it was had come as a little bit of a surprise. He kind of understood the basic reasoning, but still thought she was being unfair to Theo. Also, he remembered how traumatic getting his own powers had been, and suspected she wouldn't be nearly as eager to get them if she truly understood that.

"That's probably true," agreed Riley. "Like I said earlier, Atropos would've had to deal with rescuing us each from our guards if we hadn't already escaped. I was fine and Theo got away as well, but if two of us hadn't had powers, someone would likely have died."

"I guess you're right." Aisha looked at her with a concerned expression. "If you think I'm being too hard on him, let me know, okay? I know it's not really his fault. He tried to protect you and all."

"Totally," agreed Riley. "And just so you know, even in situations like that, the chance of actually getting powers in time to save your life is kinda low. Otherwise, violent crime wouldn't really be a thing anymore. He really lucked out, just saying."

She spoke with a surety that Brian suspected came from an expertise earned in the darker parts of her history. He preferred not to think about it, focusing on how she was in the here and now. As he was about to say something to change the subject, it was changed for him.

"Hey," Aisha said, turning her head. "Pretty sure I just heard the elevator. I think he's back."

They all looked over at the door; a moment later, a key turned in the lock. The door opened, revealing Theo, with Ms Brown behind him.

Aisha was the first one off the mark; heading over to the door, she wrapped Theo up in a heartfelt hug. "Hey," she said, holding him tightly. "Sorry I said that stuff earlier. They treated you okay?"

"Yeah." He hugged her in return. "Armsmaster wasn't totally thrilled that I can just make power armour that never needs repair and stuff, but they said they're willing to show me how to fight using the weapons I can make."

"That's good. That's really good." She let him go and ruffled his hair playfully. "Even if we don't have any villains anymore in Brockton Bay, I figure they can make you into the best hero you can be, just in case."

"Thanks for bringing him home, Ms Brown," Brian said. "Is there anything we need to know about, going forward?"

"Nothing that Theo can't fill you in on himself." She gave him a warm smile. "I'm pleased they both came out of that in one piece."

"And now we don't have to tiptoe around about Brian and Riley being capes." Aisha had apparently forgotten her disgruntlement over not getting powers herself. "I definitely call that a win, right there."

Riley waggled her hand in the air. "Theo's pretty sharp. He would've figured it out in a week or so. He grew up in a cape household, remember?"

"Mmm." Theo didn't sound so sure. "Maybe two weeks. I had no idea."

Ms Brown chuckled at the banter, and nodded to Brian. "See you next checkup."

"See you then," he said, and watched the door close behind her.

There was a sudden growling sound, and Theo flushed. "Sorry about that. They barely fed me while I was there. Everyone seemed to think everyone else had gotten me food."

"We got your back," Aisha declared. "Saved you some pizza. It's in the fridge."

"You are a wonderful human being." Theo made a beeline for the kitchenette.

Aisha grinned. "Yeah, I know."

Anne Barnes

"So, I hear you had a fun day out." Anne sat on Emma's computer chair, one heel up on the seat with her arms folded around her lower leg, while Emma sat cross-legged on the bed. "Was it really as dramatic as you said to Mom, about being kidnapped by a tyrant cape from another Earth?"

"I actually left out a lot." Emma met her gaze squarely. "I didn't want her getting worried, you see. Our Lady in Darkness was watching over me the entire time."

Anne frowned. "Yeah, that's another thing she said. Apparently she did the whole thing to get at Atropos? Doesn't that make being a Follower kind of, uh, dangerous?"

"I serve Her purpose," Emma said serenely. "With me there, the false Goddess felt confident in allowing Her to do whatever She wished, believing that my presence would keep Her from acting against the pretender's wishes. Any perceived danger was down to my lack of faith in Her capabilities." She smiled beatifically. "And now, She has freed a whole world from the yoke of tyranny."

"You're still leaving out a lot, sis. Do I want to know what happened to this 'false Goddess'?"

So then Emma told the story of what had happened once she arrived in the throne room, eliding only over the real names of the other two capes who'd been there. She seemed downright amused by Atropos' 'three Shins' pun, and was apparently unconcerned that their departure had left the depowered villainous cape to almost certainly be murdered by the mob. By contrast, the end of the story was positively anti-climactic. "And then, She brought us home."

Anne shook her head. "That would've terrified me. I'm sorry if this upsets you, but I think Atropos is scary."

"Well, She is scary," agreed Emma. "I wouldn't have come to the true realisation of my trespasses against Her if She wasn't. Fear is a great motivator to not act against Her. I suspect it's saved many lives."

"I wasn't actually meaning that in a good way, but …" Anne sighed, thinking about the general exodus of villains from Brockton Bay, and of the careful good behaviour of the ex-villains who had either been allowed to return to the city, or arrived for the first time. "Yeah, I guess I get your point."

"So, enough about me and Our Lady in Darkness." Emma grinned at Anne. "How was your day? Did you meet up with Crystal and, uh, Faultline, like you said you would?"

"How did I know it was going to get back around to that?" Anne fixed her sister with an unimpressed gaze. "I think I preferred it when you were fixated on Atropos twenty-four-seven."

"I've learned to appreciate that Her actions are not the only important things in life, and that I am not Her sole concern." Emma shrugged. "If She calls, then I will answer, but I will not intrude unless I am needed." She gave Anne a meaningful look. "But I think you're deflecting now."

This time, Anne's sigh was more aggravated. Busted. "Okay, fine, we got together down at the Boardwalk around about lunchtime, once Melanie got back from Boston. It was a bit awkward at first …"

Boardwalk (Six Hours Earlier)

Anne Barnes

The churros were nice and crunchy, but she could only stall for so long. "So …" Anne hinted, leaning on her elbows.

"So …" echoed Crystal, nibbling at her powdered donut. They both looked at Melanie, who was rocking aviator shades.

"So," the ex-villain agreed. "We're all sober right now, yes?"

"It's been at least eleven or twelve hours," Crystal noted. "We should be good."

"I concur." Melanie nodded. "So, what do we actually have in common?"

Anne shared a glance with Crystal. "Atropos?" she ventured.

"While that's weirdly true," Crystal said dryly, "I'm pretty sure it's not a great foundation for any kind of relationship."

"Wait." Melanie lowered her glasses and looked at Crystal over them. "Did she set this whole thing up? Between us, I mean?"

"Uh, no. Absolutely not." Anne shook her head. "I talked to Emma this morning. She asked Atropos straight-up, and Atropos said she didn't know about it until it happened."

"She said as much on PHO," Crystal added. "And you'll be pleased to know that nobody's connected the dots on who either of you are yet. You're just 'the brunette' and 'the redheaded chick'."

Melanie nodded, looking satisfied. "Thought so."

"Maybe not 'nobody'," Anne cautioned. "I saw that thread too, and there were a couple of people who seemed to be reading stuff into it that nobody else was. A 'Mr Newtonian' and someone called 'Silent Whispers'. The Newtonian guy was just laughing his head off."

"Yes. I know." Melanie growled, deep in her throat. "That's Newter. He saw the video of me telling your folks to go easy on you, and worked the whole thing out. I'm not at all sure if I'm ever going to live this down in their eyes. I'm just glad Gregor doesn't really share his sense of humour, and Labyrinth doesn't understand what's going on."

"Oh." Crystal smirked. "And Silent Whispers? Who's that?"

"Probably Tattletale, if I'm any judge. She hates that I can out-think her even without a Thinker power like she's got." Melanie took off her sunglasses and rubbed her hand over her face. "But we didn't come here to talk about them. What else do we have in common?"

"I'd say 'alcohol' but that's kind of self-evident," Anne said. "Okay, come on. Movies? I like rom-coms."

"Action rom-coms," Crystal offered.

"Action," Melanie grinned. "Rom and/or com optional. Pineapple on pizza, yes or no? I say no."

"Eww, haha, nope." Crystal made amazingly realistic gagging noises.

"Not my go-to, but I don't care either way." Anne cast about for another topic. "The trolley problem. Throw the lever and kill one, don't throw the lever and kill five?"

"I'd laser the fuck out of the trolley," Crystal said immediately.

"Oh, come on, that's cheating," protested Anne.

Melanie shrugged. "I was gonna say, demolition charges. Or cut the ropes with my power and let them free." With a subtle flick of her fingers, she sliced one of Anne's churros in half. "How about you?"

Anne hunched her shoulders, uncomfortable about being put on the spot. "I, uh … I've always thought it would depend on who it was and if they were important to me. Does that make me a shitty person?"

"No, it makes you human." Crystal put a hand on her arm. "The shitty person's the one who came up with that dilemma. Okay, uh … suppose you got to pick the perfect cake for your next birthday. What would it be?"

"Chocolate cake," Anne declared promptly. "With pink and white icing, and sprinkles. And the candles arranged in a nice symmetrical pattern."

"Hmm." Melanie rubbed her chin with thumb and forefinger. "Cheesecake. No icing, no candles. Minimal decoration. Just all the cheesecake." She looked at Crystal. "And you?"

"Double layered sponge." Crystal smiled in what Anne suspected was fond remembrance. "Slathered in banana-flavoured icing, with sparklers for candles."

"I do like the sparklers idea," Anne said. "Okay, what now?"

"Answer me a question." Melanie had taken her sunglasses off now, and her hands were folded in front of her. "Why did you start kissing us?" She held up one finger briefly. "I'm not judging. What happened after that, we all participated. But none of us were really expecting it. Hell, I'd always thought I was more het than bi, and seeing how surprised you were after the fact, I'm pretty sure you were too. What I'm asking is, does alcohol just flip your switch, or was it something else?"

"Ugh." Anne covered her face with her hands; she could already feel her cheeks heating up. "I knew you were going to ask about that."

"You don't have to answer if you don't want to," Crystal reassured her. "This isn't an interrogation, we're just sharing stuff about ourselves."

"No, no, it's a totally valid question." Anne knew her cheeks were flaming red by now, but this was something she had to do. "I've had this sort of kinky little fantasy for the longest time, you know? To get into a threesome with two guys, and get one guy to roleplay being a hero and the other to play being a villain, so I can pretend I'm sleeping with a superhero and a supervillain at the same time. I've read every capefic out there about that sort of thing. Never expected it to happen, never even had the nerve to try and arrange it, but … yeah. Drunk, sitting between you two … switch flipped, I guess."

For the longest time, neither one reacted, then Crystal snorted softly. "Sorry," she said immediately, covering her smile with her hand. "Not laughing at you. Just …"

"It is kind of funny," agreed Melanie, though her face was poker-still. "Though we did walk into that one, didn't we? I was just going to make sure you both got to your dorm rooms okay, then go back and sleep it off in my car, but then you both kissed me and …" A little colour touched her cheeks as well. "Switch flipped."

"Yeah." Crystal bore a tiny smile, which suggested she was harbouring secret thoughts of her own. "That definitely happened. So, are you up to going for a walk? The Rogues' Guild should be setting up just a little bit farther down the Boardwalk, and I wanted to swing by."

"I'd heard about them." Melanie steepled her fingers in front of her. "We were looking to recruit Spitfire, but then Atropos came along and we had to abort our plans. Are they any good?"

Crystal's smile grew to a grin. "Amy seems to think so. Then again, she's dating Parian, so she might be just a teensy bit biased. That aside, Parian can make you a totally lifelike doll in just a few minutes. I saw the one she did of Amy, and it'd knock your socks off."

Anne hadn't heard about that bit, but she was pretty sure that the Followers of Atropos were buying toys from Salvage to hand out to disadvantaged kids. She just hoped Emma wouldn't show up with her cult while Anne was there; she could only handle so much judgement at a time. Still, the doll thing sounded cool, and she figured she could always hide behind Melanie and Crystal if necessary. "Let's go take a look."

"Absolutely." Melanie got to her feet, and offered Anne an entirely unnecessary hand up. Anne accepted it, feeling the strength in Melanie's grip as she stood up. "Let's go do that thing."

Emma (Evening)

"Meanwhile, I wasn't even on the same planet." Emma shook her head with a grin. "So, how'd it go with the Rogues' Guild?"

"Mel was pretty damn impressed, actually." Anne leaned back in the chair. "She had a good chat with Parian about the logistics of running a group. I'm reasonably certain I saw Parian taking notes."

"So did you get a doll made?" Emma was pretty sure she knew the answer.

"Not today, but that's only because she had a backlog." Anne rolled her eyes. "Turns out when Panacea puts up pictures on PHO, people pay attention. And it didn't help when Glory Girl showed up with Panacea, and Parian took a break so they could catch up. I'd thought Crystal might've been exaggerating a little when she said they were dating. She wasn't."

Emma chuckled; she couldn't help herself. "Yet another Atropos unintended consequence."

Anne frowned. "What's that?"

"Before She showed up, everyone in the city was wound tighter than Accord's pocket watch." Emma wasn't sure if he had one, but if he did, its mainspring would always be under strain. "But with the crime gone, everyone's had time to relax and notice each other. I'd be totally astonished if you guys were the only new relationship in Brockton Bay."

"We're not sure if we're even that yet," Anne protested. "It's only been two days."

Emma smiled. The lady doth protest overmuch. "I know."

End of Part Seventy-Six